When we talk about the books that got us there, I am reminded of books that inspired my thinking in some pivotal way– that revealed some simple truth in an unmistakable way. Like a light turned on in the darkness, these books probe something inside of us to seek a different truth, whether it is reality or fantasy.
If one man consistently does just that, it’s Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s profound ideals enlighten us through simple statements given by characters often as lost in the mystery of the world as we are, though sometimes they aren’t always aware of their folly, and, oftentimes, they are the very ones falling prey to what they think they know.
Vonnegut consistently creates masterful satiric work and social commentary on what has been, what is, and what is to come. He doesn’t approach topics of political and social importance, like dictatorship and democracy, with the lofty speech of forgotten forefathers or with a lambasting philippic of his own beliefs, nor does he waltz around them. No, Vonnegut, by way of his less than heroic characters and their dialogue, looks you square in the face, and he forces you to confront your own beliefs– not his. All the while, he does so with an elegant simplicity that is unmistaken, and he does it all with what seems like unbelievable ease.
I see this simplicity of truth in all of Vonnegut’s novels and short stories, but, for me, Cat’s Cradle sets itself apart from the others.
When I think of Cat’s Cradle, I’m always reminded of “the hook.” ‘Papa’ Monzano, the fictional dictator of the failed utopia of San Lorenzo employs an amazingly effective (albeit crass and barbaric) punishment using “the hook.” Is there crime in San Lorenzo? No, “the hook” keeps the people so frightened of punishment that they remain pure in the eyes of the law. However, are some alleged criminals wrongly accused and unjustly put to death after being speared by “the hook” and hung to die? Yes.
With this, Vonnegut doesn’t tell you that utopia cannot exist, that dictatorships don’t work, or that punishment without trial by jury is unjust– he shows you. Furthermore, he does so without attempting to evoke pathos. Instead, he gives a cynical shrug of the shoulders, consequently emphasizing the issue even more emphatically but always reminding you that complete order will not be made from chaos.
Vonnegut paints a picture of a world where people search for answers at the risk of their demise or the demise of others. This is reminiscent of most of Vonnegut’s work but most vividly seen in Cat’s Cradle when those practicing Bokononism (Vonnegut’s fictionalized and government-outlawed religion) commit mass suicide by way of ice-nine.
Moreover, he does all of this without polluting the page or the mind. He practices word economy, and he practices it well. Bokonon, which claims its only truth is that it is, in fact, all lies proclaims, “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.”
Vonnegut in all his satirical glory takes a religion admittedly based on lies and reveals a great truth about humankind: We are all searching. Even in his cynicism and humanistic view of religion, he seems to understand that we’re all just trying to understand something beyond us.
I believe it’s God. Vonnegut believes it’s humankind. The beauty doesn’t simply lie in the words he presents on the page; rather, it exists in the thoughts it provokes in the mind. I don’t have to share Vonnegut’s views on religion or on the world to understand the truth that it points out in me. For that reason, Cat’s Cradle is one of the books that got us there.
Pages: 191 FoA Pages: 558 (Total number of pages reported on by Friends of Atticus)